Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘C’mon C’mon’ hits home at resurgent Telluride Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in the movie "C'mon C'mon."
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman play a road-tripping uncle and nephew in the movie “C’mon C’mon.”
(Tobin Yelland / A24)

In Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon,” a lovely, wistfully funny movie that premiered Thursday night at the Telluride Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix plays a radio journalist, Johnny, who’s recording interviews with America’s youth, asking kids and teenagers about their fears, their dreams and their thoughts about the world’s precarious future.

When his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), heads off for a few days to take care of some exceedingly difficult family business, Johnny steps in to look after her 10-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), whom he hasn’t spent much time with, and who turns out to be a smart, inquisitive, emotionally complicated handful as he tags along on his uncle’s cross-country tour.

If that sounds like an overly pat conceit on paper — guy who spends his days talking and listening to young people must learn how to talk and listen to the youngest person in his life — it seldom plays that way on-screen. For one thing, the irony itself is acknowledged when Johnny briefly flirts with the idea of interviewing Jesse for his project, a possibility that wisely never comes to pass. (It’d be superfluous, anyway, in a movie that’s already a feature-length conversation.) For another, one of Mills’ points is that life’s unceasing jumble has a way of creating its own strange patterns and recurrences. The tensions of family and the stresses of work tend to blur into each other, as do the stories we sometimes hear about other people and the grand drama of our own everyday lives.


“C’mon C’mon,” which will next screen at the New York Film Festival and will be released by A24 later this year, is a fine-grained family drama, a loose-limbed road movie and the latest reminder of Mills’ talent for reshaping elements of his personal history into stirringly personal cinema (“Beginners,” “20th Century Women”). Introducing his latest in Telluride, the 55-year-old Mills noted that much of the movie — beautifully played by Phoenix, Norman and Hoffmann, and shot in luminous black-and-white by the brilliant Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan — was inspired by his own humbling, thrilling experiences as a parent.

But he’s also brought another intricate layer of reality to the mix: Johnny’s interview subjects are all real kids speaking about their real experiences, plucked from Detroit, New York and New Orleans. And while they largely remain on the narrative periphery, Mills is clearly genuinely fascinated by what they have to say, especially as they prepare to enter a world that the ostensible grown-ups seem to have screwed up as comprehensively as possible.

Writer and director Mike Mills
“C’mom, C’mon” writer and director Mike Mills.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

It was hard not to think about that world while watching “C’mon C’mon,” and also not to think about my own tiny little corner of it — a lapse into solipsism that I hope can be forgiven, and perhaps even vindicated, by Mills’ rightful insistence on the interconnectivity of all human experience. I thought a lot about my own 5-year-old daughter, who in some respects couldn’t be more different from Jesse, and who in many others — the rambunctious energy, the dessert-first eating habits, the sudden and sometimes inconsolable meltdowns, the bursts of creativity and imagination — couldn’t be more similar. I also thought about all the ways in which my homebound COVID-19 existence had exacerbated my impatience and frustration as a parent, and how quick I am to tune my child out rather than hear her out — sometimes, and here’s a pat irony, so that I can have time to sit down and watch independent movies as sensitive and emotionally perceptive as this one.

All this was especially strange and surreal to ponder while sitting, double-masked, in a crowded but not overflowing theater at Telluride — the first film festival I’ve attended in person since the onset of the pandemic, which means it’s also the first time I’ve really been away from home in 18 months. Doubtless speaking for many of us who decided to make the trip, it’s a delight to be back here in this beautiful former mining town, breathing in the fresh mountain air and taking in some hopefully excellent new movies. It’s especially meaningful to be back after the pandemic forced Telluride to cancel its 2020 edition, a blow to the few thousand movie lovers for whom this Labor Day weekend event is a cherished annual highlight.

A man and boy walk with clasped hands in the movie "A Hero."
A scene from Asghar Farhadi’s movie “A Hero.”
(Amazon Prime Video)

This year, the festival returned with a characteristically robust program, stretched out over five days instead of the usual four, and with several safety measures in place, including the requirement that all festival attendees show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test before picking up their passes. Reassuring as these mitigation strategies are, their promise of safety is, of course, both precarious and conditional, and it can sometimes strand the cautious festival-goer (a contradiction in terms?) in a kind of emotional limbo. After months of social drought, to be suddenly confronted with the long-unseen faces of friends and colleagues has been both a cause for gratitude and a source of disorientation.

Warmly welcoming audiences back to Telluride on Thursday, the festival’s indefatigable director, Julie Huntsinger, expressed her gratitude for those who’d braved the trip and requested our patience over a festival that would be necessarily different from those of years past. Whether due to travel anxiety or busy shooting schedules, a few key actors were noticeably absent from their films’ premieres, including Phoenix and Will Smith, the star of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s well-received drama “King Richard.” Riz Ahmed had to cancel his own Telluride travel plans at the last minute, despite having been selected to receive a tribute from the festival in conjunction with the unveiling of his new movie, “Encounter,” the latest from the English filmmaker Michael Pearce.

Starring Ahmed as an ex-con who drives off in the middle of the night with the two young sons he hasn’t seen in years, “Encounter” screened early Thursday for festival patrons and wound up making an amusing if inadvertent road-movie double bill with “C’mon C’mon.” The comparison doesn’t exactly flatter Pearce’s movie, an uneven farrago of science-fiction thriller and child abduction drama just about held together by Ahmed’s forceful and committed performance as a man teetering on the brink. Despite that and a handful of moving moments with his young co-stars (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada), it’s a particular letdown after the director’s strong (and much more successfully ambiguous) psychological thriller, “Beast.”

A vastly more satisfying father-son drama, albeit one that arrived in Telluride with strong reviews and a major Cannes prize already under its belt, was “A Hero,” the latest from the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi and his strongest work since the Oscar-winning “A Separation.” With a typically laserlike focus on the complex motivations of a wide array of characters, this meticulously constructed drama hinges on a man (Amir Jadidi) serving a prison term for unpaid debts; the young son he’s trying to reunite with; and a mysterious bag of coins that could prove the key to reversing (or worsening) the family’s misfortune. Enveloping in its interrogation of good intentions and how quickly they can sour once they go viral, “A Hero” arrived in Telluride after winning the second-place Grand Prix several weeks ago at Cannes — another festival that rebounded after last year’s cancellation, and hopefully not the last.